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Will Women Go The Distance If It Comes Down To Choice?

Feb 9, 2009  - Craig Lord

Rebecca Adlington, double Olympic champion in the Beijing pool last August, could be deprived of a chance to defend her 800m freestyle crown at the London 2012 home Games. The most successful British swimmer in 100 years broke the longest-surviving world swimming record on the way to one of the most outstanding victories over 16 lengths in Olympic history last year at the Water Cube - but the event now faces extinction in the debate over Olympic expansion and the drive to achieve equality between the sexes in sport.

The International Olympic Committee will decide the matter “this summer” after its Programmes Commission has considered a request from FINA, the international swimming federation, to add eight new events in time for London 2012. Those include 50m on all strokes beyond freestyle for men and women and a 1,500m freestyle for women and an 800m for men. Acceptance would deliver the first Olympic swimming contest in history at which precisely the same 20 races are available to both sexes, as has been the case at world championships since 2001.

However, Adlington’s signature event could become something of a bargaining chip for a US-led equality lobby at a time when the International Olympic Committee is seeking to contain the wildest expansion plans of more than 30 individual sports, each with their own requests for growth. 

The worrying news for 19-year-old Adlington, who also won the 400m freestyle title in Beijing, and FINA is that the history of voting in the IOC’s Programmes Commission is lined with compromise and equality can be achieved without expansion in the pool. Those who have spent a lifetime in the sport watching the IOC take votes that from a swimming perspective make no sense - no 200m medley, no men's 4x100m free in 1976, for example - are preparing the way for the moment anyone with a voice at the IOC table says: "No way - ou have to choose: 800m or 1,500m for women - what's it going to be?"

Some sound American voices, including those of some of the world’s leading coaches and most-respected officials, have what could be described as a persuasive quid pro quo in mind: if a choice must be made, cancel the 800m and make women step up to the 1,500m, a classic event for men since Hungarian Alfred Hajos conquered rivals and 12ft waves in the Bay of Pireaeus in 1896 - because it is high time that women were swimming the same events as men in a world where the fairer sex proved many years ago that it is not going to faint away at the prospect of 30 laps. Along the spectrum of history, from the generation of Fanny Durack, Aileen Riggin  and Gertrude Ederle to Janet Evans in the pool and the latest long-distance sensation, Jennifer Figge, who at the weekend was enjoying much attention as the first woman to swim across the Atlantic, women have proven themselves well-equipped to cope with the same challenges as me.  

Understandably, however, when the whisper reached Adlington's ears, the 19-year-old, currently training in the Canary Islands for a world-title showdown in Rome this summer, she called on the IOC to uphold her right to defend her 800m crown:  “I don't see why they should do that. It's a brilliant event, it's a traditional event, it's the event I've trained for and swum for the past seven years. If they really want to have women match men, great, but why not add the 1,500m for women and the 800 for men at the Olympics, like we have at the World Championships. Don't take something away from us that's been a great event in our sport. There are some men who are brilliant at the 800m but don't get the chance to show it because 1,500m too far for them." Australian Ian Thorpe is a case in point: a world champion and record holder at 800m, he did not get the chance to race the distance in Olympic waters. 

The argument of FINA to match the world-championships programme in Olympic waters makes sense, although there are opposing camps when it comes down to asking which should hold more sway: more distance free events or more 50m sprint events on three others strokes. Personally, I'd take the two distance events over the 50m events any day, not so much when looking at the final line-up of eight but at the prospect of heat after heat after heat of officials who get a ticket to the Games disguised as swimmers, swim 50m breaststroke inside a minute and go off sightseeing an shopping. Taking part of part of the show - but that spirit is much abused.

Of course, equality is not only an issue in swimming. Of all sports in the Olympic programme, 11 boast equality among the sexes, three team sports field more men's teams than women's teams, two sports are men only (boxing and baseball) and two are women only (synchronised swimming and softball), eight non-team sports have more events for men than women and four sports have the same number of events for both sexes but men endure longer distances or duration of activity.

Adlington would not be the first champion to be deprived of a chance to chase her dream. The International Amateur Boxing Association continues to press for the inclusion of women in the Games at a time when the likes of Laila Ali, daughter of Olympic legend Muhammed Ali, have proved than women can fight. World super middleweight champion, Ali is a chip off the old block: fought 24, won 24, won by KO, 21, lost 0. But adding women could mean trimming the men's programme by a couple of weights, while girls with bloody noses do no stir the hearts of many in the IOC's corridors of power.

In sailing, Britain's Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb, and Pippa Wilson, the “three blondes in a boat” who won the Yngling class title in Beijing have already seen their big event scraped and have hade to move on to other events in which they cannot compete together. Ayton, already a double gold medal winner, is now bidding to become the most successful female British sailor ever with a third gold in a different class at London 2012. Adlington also has other possibilities: she is 400m champion, is a world-class 200m swimmer a member of the British 4x200m quartet working its way to a place on the London podium.

But nothing can compare with the 800m, over which Adlington raced inside the 1989 world record of US legend Janet Evans, one of only two women (both American) ever to defend the Olympic title. Bill Furniss, the man who has coached Adlington since her pre-teen years at Nottingham's Nova Centurion club, said: "I would not be at all happy about that [replacing the 800m] at all. Obviously, if it happened we would have to respond to events. But the fact is the 400m is still a bonus event for Rebecca. She's an 800m swimmer. The sport has developed to such an extent that the vast majority of people have to be so specialised. It's rare to find people who can take on lots of events and win. The 800m is her race."

Women were only deemed capable of racing 800m at the Games as recently as 1968, when the crown went to Debbie Meyer (USA), the first woman to win three gold medals in Olympic waters at the same Games. The call to move to the 1,500m emerged from talks between Americans almost a year ago, before Adlington had swum into the records books. Bruce Wigo, head of the International Swimming Hall of Fame and organiser of a Multi-media tour of America entitled "From Bloomers to Bikinis: How the Sport of Swimming Changed Our Culture and the Status and Image of Women”,  trumpeted the cause in a sound and persuasive paper circulated in the States. It concluded: “Baron de Coubertin cringed at the thought of physically weak women collapsing on the track, but today women compete successfully in the same events as men on the road and track in the marathon [since 1984], at 5,000 and 3,000 meter distances.  In the water polo tank, women compete in a game long considered by many to be too difficult for women.  In the open water, men and women contest the same distance of 10 kilometers and men and women both swim 1500 meters at the FINA World Championships.  But in the Olympics, one last vestige of Victorian thinking remains: now is the time to fix what should have been done in 1968 - change the women’s distance event from 800 meters to 1,500 for the 2012 London Games.”

If Adlington are those who followed her home in Beijing are still clocking world-class times over 800m in 2011 and 2012 - and looking at their ages and pathways, there is no reason to believe that they will not - the argument for retaining the 800m in 2012 and adding the 1,500m is solid. For the other seven events included in FINA's request, no tradition, no history, no defending champions are affected. If the bullet must be bitten, better that it comes in 2016, by which time swimmers and coaches will have had two world titles at which to refocus their distance ambitions, and the champion of 2012 would known that the 800m crown is their's forever.

Meanwhile, this is what an IOC source said: "No-one aims to upset the host of the next Games and Adlington is a great champion, a household name. What she did in Beijing will help to inspire generations to come. But my feeling is that we will have to grasp the nettle, if not this summer, then surely by 2016. There are no real arguments against equality and it can't, of course, come down to one individual. This is about 100 years of progress for women in sport. It’s taken a long time to get here.” The answer from FINA, of course, is that the Olympic Games can have it all: parity of sexes and programmes, Olympic and world. And that is what is currently on the table as the IOC Programmes Commission considers all the facts.